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Friday, December 9, 2011

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(Published on on 10 December 2011, retrieved from

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It’s a dispute that is about as old as Independence, and a tug-of-war that dates back to 1979. Yet, the tussle between Kerala and Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar Dam has affected groups that have nothing to do either with the dam, or the purpose it serves – Sabarimala devotees, women plantation workers, business owners, and truck-drivers.
Angry mobs have been charging at immigrants from the neighbouring state in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu, as helpless governments mull over the situation. Despite assurances from various teams that have conducted several stress tests on the dam, a section of Kerala believes the Tamil Nadu government is putting its people in danger by refusing to decommission the dam.
And that section decides to teach Tamil Nadu a lesson by attacking civilians from the state. Another mob from Tamil Nadu retaliates by attacking business establishments ranging from jewellery shops to tea stalls owned by Malayalis.
This spate of aggression is possibly the only one that makes less sense than the attacks on North Indians by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in Mumbai a couple of years ago.
Here, you have groups of people that are neither representative of the issue at hand nor cause for the stalemate unleashing violence against each other simply because they exist.
What really is the Mullaperiyar controversy about? The dam has been operational since 1895, and though it’s located in Kerala, the use of its waters has been leased to Tamil Nadu for a period of 999 years. The agreement, which was signed between the British and the Maharaja of Travancore became invalid after Independence, but was renewed in 1970.
After an earthquake hit the area, the water level was reduced from 142 feet to 136 feet to facilitate repair work. Since then, the level has not been increased, despite a Supreme Court order to the contrary. Meanwhile, Kerala has claimed the dam is too old and too weak to withstand a natural calamity, and that it should be relocated downstream.
Blame it on fear psychosis – that farmers in Tamil Nadu would suffer because their lands would be parched, or that towns in Kerala would be flooded if the dam burst – or half-baked knowledge, but what should ideally be left to governments to sort out has filtered down to the populace. And with minor political parties throwing in their two cents to exploit the issue for leverage, the antagonism escalates, and so does the violence.
The involvement of the common man in this senseless brutality is indicative of a larger malaise. Over the past couple of decades, we’ve spent nearly as much time thumping our chests and speaking of ahimsa, as threatening to do – or doing – the exact opposite. What’s worse, we’ve managed to associate ourselves with ancient armies from our scriptures, and coloured our base behaviour with a tint of heroism.
With so many contentious issues alive in Parliament today, one shudders to think of what could happen when the decisions finally come. Take the ruling on Foreign Direct Investment, for instance. When politicians, however doubtful the credentials of the likes of Uma Bharti may be, say they will set branches of Wal-Mart on fire, how long will it take for their fanatic followers to translate word into action? And who are the gainers and losers? Will burning down stores in any way help the resellers who may be affected by the FDI policy?
Besides, it is nearly always the case that the most ardent protesters don’t have much of a handle on the issue. FDI, for instance, does not mean neighbourhood stores will shut down. It will mean they may have to lower their prices, and that they will have to perk up and innovate in terms of the services they offer. A shop that’s open late into the night, or that offers home delivery, will probably do as well or better than it has been doing so far. It will also mean consumers have more options, and that there is quality control on the goods being sold. But do the groups holding up placards and staging dharnas think about this?
It’s all right to have an opinion. And it’s important to be politically aware. But when one doesn’t even understand the import of an issue, how does it make any sense to jump to conclusions about the repercussions of a ruling, and protest in the most belligerent manner imaginable? Throwing shoes at ministers has become a staple in the lexicon of the disgruntled. How long before attacking unarmed, innocent citizens joins in?


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